SITEVI is an enormous agricultural cultivation show that is held every two years in the southern French city of Montpellier. I was at the November 26-28 show to see what was new in the grape-growing-winemaking area.
Despite gloomy news reports of French agricultural problems, particularly the 2013 grape harvest that was sharply down because of a cold spring and summer hailstorms, the recent closure of poultry plants in Brittany, and the frequent presence of protesting farmers rolling their tractors down the main streets of major French cities, SITEVI presented a positive image of the country’s wine, vegetable and fruit production. Over 1,000 exhibitors from 22 different countries displayed winemaking equipment (presses, tanks, pumps, filters, barrels etc.), soil and vine cultivation equipment (tractors, sprayers, vine-training systems, etc.), mechanical harvesting equipment, pesticides, insecticides, computer programs for tracking every possible farm operation, and farm equipment of every shape and variety.
The three-day event attracted more than 50,000 visitors (from 55 countries), including the French Minister of Agriculture who made an appearance the final day to congratulate the exhibitors for having shown the world that agricultural pessimists in France might be incorrect. Undeniably, the effect of seven or eight exposition buildings stuffed with polished tractors and gleaming, stainless steel wine tanks, and enormous wine presses, bottling equipment and machinery is the agricultural equivalent of the Cold War parades put on by the former-Soviet Union and China to display their military might.
There’s just something about men and big machines. And other than some wives dutifully following their farmer husbands from stand to stand, it was a mostly male crowd at SITEVI.
One, two, buckle your shoe
The effect of machinery on men never ceases to amaze. Outside of one of the buildings, a tractor equipped with something that looked like a large drill bit that had sprouted twigs was planting iron stakes into the ground as fast as you might tie your shoe. Every time I went past, there were a dozen or so elderly farmers watching with the rapt attention that my sons devote to their video games. You could almost read the thoughts of these grizzled farmers, some of whom, judging by their thick, callused fingers, probably started out working their farms with four-footed horsepower. Anyone who has ever wielded a heavy sledge-hammer can identify with their awe about this new device that made installing fence posts as easy as, well, tying your shoes.
There were many such new innovations (over 80 according to the SITEVI press release) presented at the event. If I hadn’t forgotten the battery for my digital camera in its charger back home, I would have photos here of the light-weight, no-emission electric tractors that will soon be plowing vineyards in France and elsewhere, and mechanical grape harvesters equipped with optical sorters and sorting tables that promise to lower costs and to increase the quality of mechanical grapes harvests.
One of the main reasons for my attending SITEVI (besides the presence of all of those testosterone-boosting machines) was a morning round-table discussion about “Aromatic white wines” for the export market. One of my favorite wine writers, David Cobbold, moderated the session. He writes, along with four other journalists, for a French wine blog called Les 5 du Vin. And his own blog, More than just wine—as its name suggests, is a wealth of information about wine and other subjects close to his heart, such as rugby, motorcycles, music, literature and art. I would recommend either blog (but with the caveat that Les 5 du Vin is in French) to anyone who enjoys commentary delivered with rare insight and a wry sense of humor.
The “Aromatic white wines” discussion panel included a variety of experts representing the commercial, scientific and production wine spheres. The main takeaway from the session, viewed from the perspective of the French wine market, is that there are multiple routes forward for easy-to-drink white wines outside of the Chablis or Burgundy regions or made from grape varieties other than Chardonnay. One is what I’ll call the New Zealand-Sauvignon Blanc strategy, where the emphasis is on higher-quality white wines that emphasis aromatic and gustative qualities related to their unique terroir.
Jean-Philippe Perrouty, director of Wine Intelligence France, part of the London-based market research and strategy consulting Wine Intelligence group, presented an analysis of the success, in England, of Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand. Much of their success, he said, is their focus on the higher-priced wine market. The professional association, he added, the 600 to 800 producers of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines, works together to present a consistent image of quality and of a unique terroir. The natural beauty of the island and its tourism draw, along with its south Pacific island culture, is the basis of their wine marketing. He cited the professional association’s website as an example of an easy-to-use information source, complete with detailed information about where to buy New Zealand wines throughout the world.
Jean-Claude Mas of Domaines Mas, whose full head of hair rivals another Languedocian entrepreneurial winemaker, Gérard Bertrand (recipient of Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 2012 “Winery of the Year” award), was also present. Maybe there’s a correlation between hair quantity and motivation, a thirst for success and innovatory spirit, as these two have all of the above. Mas has been particularly successful in conquering foreign markets with his provocatively named Arrogant Frog wines (“Old World Wines with a New World Attitude”). Arrogant Frog Chardonnay-Viognier was one of the wines available for tasting after the discussion, and it showed that as much care went into making a quality wine as was put into its marketing strategy.
Bertrand Praz, purchasing manager of the Grands Chais de France, a wine exporting company, was on hand to discuss the company’s efforts to regain lost marketing share abroad. Evidently part of that strategy is to take a page, literally, out of the New Zealand playbook. His contribution to the post-discussion, wine-tasting was a New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc (with a generous helping of gooseberry fruit flavors) labeled Kiwi Cuvée. Evidently New Zealand lawyers are more accommodating than those in Champagne, or there would have already been an All-Black-and-Bleus scrimmage worthy of a Rugby World Cup match.
Just when it appeared that things couldn’t become more challenging for lovers of white wines with a unique character, the poster child of big-oak, tropical-fruit-favored wines with a good dose of sugar, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, was presented in the form of John Cole, Kendall-Jackson’s production manager. Admittedly, Cole was in enemy territory; I, for one, have been the brunt in France of dozens of “Tarriquet-with-12-grams-of-residual-sugar-Colombard-for-export-to-the-land-of-Coca-Cola” jokes. But he handled it well, freely admitting that K-J wasn’t seeking export markets. “We sell 24 million bottles of Chardonnay annually,” he told us. “The U.S. market is growing enough that we don’t need to look at export markets.”
As I tasted the 2012 vintage of Vintner’s Reserve, I was surprised that it was much more well-balanced and with a firmer acid backbone than I remember from 1990s vintages of the same wine. For me, this is an excellent sign that Americans are increasingly seeking wines with the structure and acidity needed to cleanse the palate rather than to satisfy a sweet tooth.
In summary, the Brancott Estate 2012 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with its aromatic gooseberry and passion fruit character and vibrant acidity was my favorite wine in the tasting. The Arrogant Frog Chardonnay-Viognier and Grands Chais de France Kiwi Cuvé were certainly good wines in their own right, but I’m not convinced that using clichés or wannabe marketing are the right ways to build an identity. If asked to suggest a strategy, I would go with one of my favorite wine cooperatives in southwestern France. This is the Producteurs Plaimont that consistently delivers honest wines, many made from grape varieties that are unique to this region that lies on the foothills of the Pyrenees. The Colombelle 2013 that they brought to the tasting, according to the coop’s director, Olivier Bourdet-Pees, was born out of the necessity to find a use for Colombard grapes that were previously distilled to make Armagnac. Brandy drinkers may be upset, but lovers of fruit-forward white wines blessed with a brilliant acidity are fortunate that this coop had the ability and imagination to react to changing beverage tastes.
I’m hoping that, increasingly, producers of aromatic white wines in France will look to the Producteurs Plaimont for inspiration, using, perhaps, the New Zealand Growers Association as a model of how to work together to market their wines. Before that happens, however, they’ll need to convince French wine makers that their competitor is country X wine producer, and not the neighboring appellation.